“We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both,” Brené Brown writes. “Not at the same time.” In one of her podcasts, she observes that ours is a culture that insists on being comfortable.
The implications are clear.
But how could comfort be a bad thing? All those years we sat straight-backed on straight chairs, danced a minuet of protocol, used window-unit air conditioners and box fans, wore ties or tight girdles and crossed our hearts with elastic and wire…. Comfort eases the body and the soul. It is a warm bath into which we can sink, relaxed at last. Surely it makes us kinder, more patient?
It is as soothing as Xanax. And we are addicted.
Technology allows us to live always at the same temperature, safe from bugs and pollen and breezes. Anyone who can afford to shuns the crowds and smells of public transit. At the first hint of boredom or stress, we have a million distractions on our phone alone. At any suggestion of moral obligation or productivity requirements, we can quiet quit. If monogamy asks too much of us, we can dilute it with a third or fourth partner. When commentary angers us, we click away from it.
I would still rather be outside, and I have a weird affection for buses and subways. And for my husband. But faced with the thought of an exhausting shopping trip, I set my jaw and order from Amazon, no doubt funding a sweatshop in China. When I have finished a good book, a low-level panic sets in until I locate something else to read. God forbid I just lie there quietly and listen to Bach—I might have distressing thoughts about the to-do list or a sick friend or a weird rash or the possibility that all the banks will fail at once.
Psychologist Todd Kashdan writes about “comfort addiction,” in which we gulp up comfort and security at the expense of emotional growth. Why take a risk or expose ourselves to possible misery or step outside our comfort zone for even a minute? Life is hard enough. We need soft pillows and high thread counts and spas and massages and comfort foods and pot and booze and porn and gadgets just to make it through.
I believe that. But I also notice that comfort has come to feel like our birthright. We are like trashy guests of a gracious host who, urged to make themselves comfortable, kick off their stinky sneakers, put their feet up on the antique coffee table, pop open a beer, take a long loud swig, and belch. There we stay, as long as possible. And every few days, we snap out of our stupor and wail that we are stuck in a rut, unfulfilled.
This tendency is only exacerbated by our prevailing (and often well-grounded) pessimism about the future.
There are many kinds of comfort, of course. One is simply being at ease in your own skin, your own life, your own home. It took lockdown for me to fully make myself at home in my own house. For years I had preserved the dining room for dinner parties and the living room for God knows what, except the Christmas tree and the coffee and dessert after dinner. Now our dining room has morphed into a craft room, a cheerful mess, and the living room is where we romp with the dog. Both clean up fine for company. Why did it take a global pandemic to shift my fussy inherited thinking?
Another, blissful sort of comfort is sensuous. Soft fabrics against your skin, shoes that bounce instead of pinching. That, too, I refuse to give up.
But then there is the comfort of avoidance. Avoiding any risk, any possibility of being too hot or too cold or too vulnerable, any relationship that might call for a little self-sacrifice, any conversational topic that might be uncomfortable. I snack preemptively, lest hunger claw at the lining of my stomach. I swallow indica because I find the angst of insomnia intolerable.
I am not alone. Our cultural addiction to comfort is an inability to face distress. That inability—a lack of grit, we call it—keeps us addicted to smaller comforts as well. Marcel Bonn-Miller studied people who grew too dependent on cannabis and found out that those who quit and relapsed almost immediately were those who had no tolerance for distress. The anxiety about having to suffer symptoms overwhelmed them. People who were less anxious about experiencing distress were far less likely to relapse. This sounds too obvious, but when you are caught up in a habit you want to change, it helps to realize that it is not the overwhelming seduction of the habit, luring you like a siren, that makes it hard to stop. It is your own nervousness about discomfort.
With age, we grow more nervous, and I worry that I will wallow in whatever comfort is possible and let risks and chances slide by. Routines are comforting, and they can suck you down like quicksand. Spending your evenings at home by the fire is cozy, and can make a night of theater or music strike you as not worth the bother, because you will have to get in your car and drive there, for God’s sake, in the dark and maybe the rain, and maybe the seat will not be as plush as your sofa, plus you really ought to wear clothes that are not lined in fleece….
“Oh, we don’t go out much,” people say, smug in their cocoon, and I nod in agreement, because it is lovely to feel cozy and happy at home…but will I reach a point where I never leave? Where I am so comfortable that adrenaline never zings through my blood, and I have no funny catastrophes or adventures to turn into stories later? Skills will atrophy. Courage will slip to the floor in a dead faint. And I will be trying to make conversation about shows I saw twenty years ago.
Comfort is supposed to follow a challenge, not replace one. Tension, risk, and physical or emotional discomfort are parts of larger experiences that are worth having, so there is no need to dread or avoid them. With a shift in focus, they shrink in proportion to the part that matters.
Knowing you will come home and treat yourself to beer and pizza or a snuggly evening in your bathrobe makes a bad or scary day endurable. It is bliss to sweat through a volunteer gig in Forest Park in 100-degree heat when you can come home to air-conditioned quiet, a shower, a gallon of iced tea, and a nap. Or to shovel snow and then come inside for hot cocoa in front of that fireplace.
Would it be better to just hire a kid or say no to the commitment?
There would be so little left to feel.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.